To gain a little better understanding of LDS belief on John’s Gospel, I have been reading a series of articles in The Testimony of John the Beloved (SLC: Deseret, 1998).
You can tell that Blake has spent some time scrutinizing the Gospel and the Epistles of John. I don’t know how Blake might nuance his interpretation today, but almost ten years ago he introduces his topic by saying,
“John’s message is expressed in terms pregnant with meaning and loaded with theological importance. Cloaked within the layers of meaning of the key terms in the writings attributed to John is the doctrine of grace, which lies at the heart of the Gospel and the Epistles of John. There, at the core of these multiple layers, we find a dynamic gospel of growth from one grace to another, from seeing to believing, from believing to obedient perseverance, from obedience to love, from love to knowledge, from knowledge to unity in Christ, and from union to deification and eternal life” (201).
His short article is broken into six, precise sections—Christ as the Gift, The Gift of Sight, Faithful Belief, Abiding in Grace, Knowing God, and Loving Union—followed by a conclusion.
Because I am covering John 3:16-17 this Sunday in our church fellowship, I am intrigued by Blake’s message on John 3 to the LDS community in the Idaho/Utah I-15 corridor.
“The life of Christ is a grace, a gift given to us by the Father out of his love for us: ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his Only Begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). The focal point to understanding John’s view of grace is the recognition that not only has the Father given his Son but also Christ has offered himself, his very life, as a gift to us. There is nothing we must do, indeed nothing we could ever do, that would merit this gift. Indeed, if we tried to earn this gift by our good works, we would forever fall short of meriting the value of Christ’s life given for us. In the end we would show only that we have misunderstood that Christ offered himself to us and for us out of love that knows no bounds and imposes no prior conditions” (202).
Blake drives the nail home at the end of this section on “Christ as the Gift” by concluding,
“The Greek verb didonai, ‘to give,’ is used throughout the Gospel of John to refer to the gracious gifts of the gospel, such as living water ‘given’ by Christ to the Samaritan woman (John 4:10), the bread of life that Jesus ‘gave’ to the multitude (John 6:31), God’s word and commandments ‘given’ by Jesus to his disciples (see John 13:34). And again I emphasize, Christ himself is the unmerited gift offered out of sheer love without any prior conditions. Christ is the living water, he is the bread of life, he is the Word of God given as a sheer grace and unmerited gift to save us” (203).
Let me quote for you the entirety of his section on “Faithful Belief”:
Although there are no conditions to God’s love for us, we must accept the gift he has so graciously offered if we hope to have eternal life. “A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven” (John 3:27). We can’t receive unless God gives; however, we must receive the gift of God through believing. Believing is much more than just an intellectual acknowledgment that Jesus is the Christ. The Greek verb “to believe” (pisteuein) occurs in one form or another in the Gospel of John 98 times and in the Epistles another 9 times. This verb always means faithfulness as a dynamic act of accepting that is manifested in behavior. The verb form of “to believe” is the same root in Greek as the word for “faith” (pistis) [I adjusted what I believe to be a transliteration error in spelling]; however, the noun for “faith,” pistis, never occurs in either the Gospel or the Epistles of John. John’s preference for verbs shows his emphasis upon the active and dynamic nature of faithful belief. Such believing means faithfulness to God in the same way that a husband is faithful to his wife. The meaning is one of interpersonal commitment manifested in one’s entire life and activity rather than merely an acceptance of cognitive content. “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life [Greek, zoe aionios]: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him” (John 3:36). Those who do not believe in this sense are condemned because “light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). John’s record uses a verb form “to do the truth,” which is awkward in English, but it expresses well the meaning of the active and interpersonal sense of “faithful believing”: “He that doeth the truth cometh to the light” (John 3:21). One does the truth by being faithful to the loving relationship which saves us. As Raymond Brown commented:
“Thus, pisteuein eis [again I corrected what I thought to be a transliteration error in spelling in the quote] [‘belief in’] may be defined in terms of an active commitment to a person and, in particular, to Jesus. It involves much more than trust in Jesus or confidence in him; it is an acceptance of Jesus and of what he claims to be and a dedication of one’s life to him. The commitment is not emotional but involves a willingness to respond to God’s demands as they are presented in and by Jesus (see I John 3:23). This is why there is no conflict in John between the primacy of faith and the importance of good works. To have faith in Jesus whom God sent is the work demanded by God (see John 6:29), for to have faith implies that one will abide in the word and commands of Jesus (John 8:31; I John 5:10).”
I would like to make three quick comments about this section. (1) Blake has done a nice job in stripping away the notions that efficacious belief is only a shallow “easy believism”, a harmful, delusional aspect being proposed in some circles of American evangelicalism. (2) As a small correction to his comment, “the noun for ‘faith,’ pistis, never occurs in either the Gospel or the Epistles of John,” I would remind Blake of I John 5:4. (3) And last of all, the questions I would pose for both Raymond Brown and Blake are “what are the ‘commands of Jesus’?” And do these commands eliminate justification by faith alone?
The last section “Loving Union” reveals our greatest theological differences with one another. Blake, extrapolating from John 6:38, 14:10, 17, 17:11, 21-23, and I John 3:1-3, writes,
“By becoming one, Christ ‘gives’ us the same glory that he had with the Father before the world was. By becoming united as one in the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, we have ‘eternal life’ and participate in the very kind of existence that God enjoys. . . . We come to know God in the sense that we become just as God is. Thus, just as a son becomes what his father is, so we become sons [and daughters] of God by intimate knowledge. . . . The culmination of God’s grace received through living faith is thus to be like God. All of the elements of John’s view of grace come together here. We come to know God. Such knowledge gives us sight to see God as he truly is. We are recognized as God’s children who grow to resemble their parent. We become pure or sanctified, just as our Father is pure and sanctified. We become as God is through grace. Thus, although we forever remain distinct individuals, we become one ‘in’ the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (see John 17:21). . . . The culmination of grace in John’s writings is deification of Christ’s true disciples and complete unity with the Godhead” (209-210).
Blakes’ logic flows smoothly with the biblical texts that he has recited. But there is one small problem. John 3:16 is not in a vacuum. In fact, it is a subpoint within the greater parameters of defining who Jesus is (a species quite unique from us) and the work that He came to do. How can LDS deification be the “culmination of grace in John’s writings” when Jesus and John the Baptist are contrasted with one another at the very beginning of John’s Gospel as different species altogether. One came from heaven (John 3:13). The other did not. One, always existing (John 1:1), was sent from God into the world (John 3:17). The other, who came into existence (John 1:6), was sent from God but not with the last three words attached, into the world. Do you see the difference between the two in the first three chapters of John’s Gospel. I am only getting started in studying and teaching this marvelous gospel in Idaho Falls. I have much to learn. But it should be understood—there is oneness between God and Christ’s disciples where we are able by His grace (and we must be, as this is our salvation, our joyous hope, confident expectation) but not in the categories where there is infinite difference between us and our Creator. John the Baptist recognized that only in the Man, Jesus Christ, was the unique, preexistent One, the revelatory Son of man. John the Baptists’ faith in such truth about Christ became the main impetus for his bold proclamation to other men and his humble worship before the Savior. So before I jump into solid agreement with Blake on the nature of faith, we should still be in the initial discussion over the nature of the object of our faith.